Each of the Cates sisters had felt for a time that her husband should be put away where others could take care of him....

So begins the powerful, empowering journey of three women who decide to get a fresh start on life -- and embark upon a plan to place their men in care facilities.

Daughters of a prominent African American family, Rebecca, Claudia, and Gracelyn Cates are ready to leave their ailing husbands -- no match for their wives in ...

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Each of the Cates sisters had felt for a time that her husband should be put away where others could take care of him....

So begins the powerful, empowering journey of three women who decide to get a fresh start on life -- and embark upon a plan to place their men in care facilities.

Daughters of a prominent African American family, Rebecca, Claudia, and Gracelyn Cates are ready to leave their ailing husbands -- no match for their wives in their unusual vigor, strong constitutions, and mental energy -- behind. And if they play their cards right, the Cates sisters will keep their good names intact, despite the Old Testament rantings of their Baptist pastor and relentlessly gossiping neighbors in their small-town world of Peoria, Illinois.

Claudia, instructed by eldest sister Rebecca to be more outgoing, enchants her parochial neighbors with her urbane chic. Gracelyn stages a Sunday school play about Harriet Tubman. And when Hillary Clinton appears at a churchwomen's tea party they're hosting, the Cates sisters establish themselves as indisputable leaders of their community. United in their purpose, the Cates women transcend the hand fate dealt them and find themselves anew...with the possibility of midlife romance. An unforgettable story of love, loss, and sisterly devotion, Laelia is a tale about the ties that bind and liberate us all.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Garnett tracks the fortunes of three middle-aged African-American sisters as they shed their ailing husbands and embark on new life adventures in her prim, occasionally stilted debut. After years of living apart, Rebecca, Claudia and Gracelyn Cates have settled down, along with their husbands, in the stately Peoria home where they grew up. Rebecca's husband, Jake, has brain damage from head trauma; Claudia's Timothy is in the final, devastating stages of alcoholism; and Gracelyn's Bernard has been ravaged by bone cancer. Much of the book chronicles the sisters' efforts to "put their men away without scandal" in a nursing home, while the major subplot revolves around Rebecca's scheme to oust the corrupt, misogynistic preacher of First Baptist, Reverend Wilson, and become deaconess. She's darkly pleased to learn that Wilson has misappropriated church funds to finance breast implants for his wife, but fate supplies a tender twist when she falls for Randall Leighton, the doctor she tricks to get the news. Garnett is a compassionate, competent storyteller, but quiet plotting produces little drama, and a keen focus on the minutiae of daily life-Rebecca's orchid business, the sisters' Sunday tea ritual-slows the pace. The Reverend Wilson's wife steps forward to play an unexpected role at the end, and a last-ditch plot twist concerning Jake's past indiscretions is little more than an afterthought. Garnett's solid, well-drawn characters are this novel's greatest strength. (Jan.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Sistahs take charge in Garnett's first. Rebecca, Claudia, and Gracelyn Cates, the dutiful middle-aged daughters of the formidable Reuben Cates, share the huge house he left to them with their husbands-but they look forward to the day when they are free at last from these triflin' men. And that day isn't far off, since all three males are candidates for nursing homes: Jake is demented after a head injury; Timothy is in terminal alcoholism, afflicted with the shakes; and Bernard has bone cancer. There've been other trials and tribulations: Jake's untreated syphilis left his wife Rebecca infertile, though she stayed married to him for decades. But she built a successful orchid-growing business, specializing in the laelias of the title, and is still doing good works, true-believing Baptist that she us. Claudia endured her husband Timothy's heavy drinking, as Gracelyn did Bernard's bossiness. Once the ailing husbands can decently be moved out, the sisters blossom, each in her own way. Rebecca, for starters, would love to get rid of Pastor Wilson, who indulges himself in misogynistic rants. His wife Julia seems too docile-almost as if she's afraid of him. Surely something is going on that folks ought to know about. A little investigating reveals the name of a surgeon, who turns out to have done breast augmentation for Julia-with the congregation's hard-earned contributions. Dr. Randall Leighton had no idea where the money came from, but he is immediately smitten with Rebecca's queenly dignity (and queenly bosom). Julia confesses: it was Wilson's idea, not hers-and he has been abusing her physically for years. Claudia finds true love with Wayne, a muscular but gentle landscaper. Gracelyn findsher creative self in directing a children's play about Harriet Tubman. But when Pastor Wilson finds fault with it, all hell breaks loose and the Cateses are right in the middle of it. Quiet-toned and sometimes stiffly written, but not without an odd charm.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781402590108
  • Publisher: Recorded Books, LLC
  • Publication date: 10/10/2006
  • Format: CD

Meet the Author

Ruth-Miriam Garnett is a graduate of Harvard University. She is the author of a collection of poetry, A Move Further South, and the recipient of many grants and awards for writing, including a creative writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. A native of Webster Groves, Missouri, she divides her time between New York City and St. Louis, Missouri.
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Read an Excerpt


By Ruth-Miriam Garnett

Washington Square Press

Copyright © 2004 Ruth-Miriam Garnett
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0743466314

Chapter One

It was technically still spring, the end of May, and the residents of Peoria, Illinois, were experiencing the first hint of what was usually a stiflingly hot summer. The three Cates sisters walked the mile and back to Sunday church services for as long as the weather was mild and the spring flowers remained in bloom. This morning, as usual, they did not walk exactly abreast. Rebecca, the eldest, led by a few paces. A large, light-skinned woman, she strode vigorously enough for her legs to make a swishing sound against the stiff fabric of her skirt, strands of gray-streaked hair escaping from the bun wound loosely under her wide-brimmed hat. Her fitted jacket outlined her large bosom, defined a surprising waist and the fertility-goddess dimensions of her hips.

Claudia, the middle sister, walked crisply but without the advantage of Rebecca's low-heeled pumps. She artfully placed one yellow-heeled foot in front of the other, in the manner of catwalk models. Her shoes matched precisely the color of her shantung suit. Slender, erect, and regal with an amazing instinct for style, she followed slightly behind Rebecca, her veiled cloche not quite concealing her strong, interesting features. Her veil, falling over her wide-set black eyes under thick arched brows and just beneath herslightly hooked nose, provided her with intended mystery. Sensing beads of moisture on her nose, Claudia removed a jewel-encrusted compact from her purse, powdered precisely, and returned it.

Rebecca, observing from the corner of her eye, smiled, then shifted her glance to Gracelyn, the youngest Cates sister. Round and sensual, Gracelyn at fifty had an ebony cherub's face with smooth bark-colored skin. Sauntering unevenly in a loose-fitting royal blue jersey dress, a matching sweater tied at her neck, she took in the landscape and good-naturedly stopped to hail a non-churchgoing neighbor bending over her garden.

Their community knew them as Reuben and Mattie Cates's daughters, female scions of the utterly respectable and monied Cates patriarch. Reuben had held his own with the nearby white businesses, putting in innumerable hours poring over catalogues and stocking his small department store with high quality, yet affordable brands. Mattie Cates had had an eye for what ladies wanted: thread, lampshades, a variety of colored stockings. The couple's astute synergy had resulted in stable profit margins year after year.

That morning, the women sat in their usual place, the sixth pew back at the First Baptist Church in Peoria, the church they had grown up in. As children, they had filed in in front of their parents, who sat together next to the aisle. The seating arrangement never varied. It was always Rebecca, then Claudia, then Gracelyn, the intractable birth order they preserved in their various rituals as adult women.

Rebecca Cates, the spitting image of Reuben in her coloring and girth, listened carefully to what was coming from the pulpit. Reverend Wilson and his wife, Julia, had come to Peoria four years back when the previous pastor, Reverend Simmons, died from a massive heart attack. The girls had grown up with the elegant, erudite Reverend Simmons. His sermons were metaphysical, uplifting, and not overlong. However, Reverend Wilson was longwinded and a relentless purveyor of moralistic instruction. His bent these days was to remind women of their submissive role in the church and in the home. Rebecca surmised that this effort followed a scandal involving the leader of the national church organization. The man was discovered to have a mistress, upon whom he lavished considerable church money, including bestowing upon this woman a waterfront cottage. The situation was kept hush-hush until the man's wife discovered the infidelity, traveled to the resort cottage on Lake Michigan, and set it afire. Both the black press and the white press went wild, following the case. Congregations could not look the other way; women condemned this and other ubiquitous male behavior in a louder voice than at any time before in the history of the church.

To move things back to normal, Wilson offered a steady procession of wicked and wily women chronicled in the Bible. The preacher intoned: "... Job remained faithful to God against all odds. Even his wife encouraged him to curse God. But Job said to her, 'Are you crazy?'"

In previous weeks it had been Jezebel, Delilah, the deceitful Tamar, and Timothy's railings against women whose sole purpose was to corrupt as many men as possible.

Rebecca wondered if she was the only one in the congregation observing the pastor's wife, Julia, while all this was happening. Julia piqued her curiosity, because more than once Rebecca had found the small woman staring at her. The first time this happened, Reverend Wilson had praised his wife from the pulpit, calling her soft-spoken. Julia's eyes darted to where Rebecca was sitting, searching her face confusedly. The second time Julia's gaze fell on Rebecca, Wilson spoke fervently about keeping the marriage vows in sickness and in health, and until the parting imposed by death. Rebecca wasn't sure at first whether Julia was friend or foe, but her overriding instinct told her the somewhat nervous woman was seeking her approval. She was in any case nonthreatening, not that there was any way she could have threatened Rebecca. Julia was never present at the male-dominated meetings of the trustees and financial committees of the church to which Rebecca was customarily invited, along with her large checkbook. But Rebecca did encounter Julia at church dinners, socials, and concerts often enough to assess her. When Rebecca and her sisters attended these functions, Julia went out of her way to speak to them. Rebecca observed that when this happened, Wilson, whose eyes were frequently upon his wife, frowned noticeably. The Cates sisters thought Julia friendly and naturally pretty, though they described her in their chat as regrettably unadorned, with lifeless hair, scant makeup, and the most minimal pedestrian jewelry. She seemed a part of the background, much like the obsolete piano kept in the church basement's dining hall. Julia, Rebecca concluded, acquiesced to her husband in every way, was loyal to him, and content to be the wife of the pastor. Other than that, there did not seem to be too much bubbling underneath her surface.

After the scandal in the national church organization subsided, for the most part the women of the church were again sanguine, playing their roles as cooks, choir members, and ushers and doing most of the busywork of the church. None protested when Reverend Wilson urged his women parishioners to triple their fund-raising efforts by increasing their bake sales, flea markets, choir concerts, and special-occasion teas. When he announced he would table a proposal for a church day-care center until the following fiscal year, the women complied with his stated priorities. They deferred to and fussed over a succession of young male seminary students assigned to First Baptist at Wilson's request. They accepted the authority of these men half their age whose tenure at the church would be only temporary, and they paraded their unmarried daughters before them. A young woman seminarian was assigned to the church shortly after Reverend Wilson became pastor, but she left without explanation after only a few months into her appointment. From the pulpit, Wilson decried what he called a lack of tenacity in some young people.

Rebecca listened halfheartedly to Wilson's Sunday morning tirades, footnoting what might be done to rid the church of his leadership. But for now, the Cates women had more pressing matters to address and they had to be pragmatic. Wilson would have to be neutralized in their current scenario.

Each of the Cates sisters had felt for a time that her husband should be put away where others could take care of him. The sisters had married men only slightly older than themselves, but these men, who had been no match for their wives in their unusual vigor, strong constitutions, and mental energy, were all in decline. Rebecca's husband, Jake, suffering from brain damage and forgetting the tasks appropriate to daylight, burned toast in the middle of the night. Claudia's intemperate husband, Timothy, stopped work on a modest pension, was awake for half days only, and when not drinking, shaking. Gracelyn's Bernard was bedridden with a sinister bone cancer and moaning constantly.

Lucy Sims, a nurse attendant, was on hand every weekend from Saturday morning to dusk Sunday to tend to the sisters' ailing spouses. She made rounds at intervals, opening the door to each bedroom, bathing and feeding Bernard and checking Jake's elimination, then locking the doors behind her. She made certain Timothy ate something when sober, and when not sober, removed his clothes, cleaned up any vomit, and sponged him down with a wet cloth. She left copies of the Peoria Call, Jet Magazine, and National Geographic in the men's rooms. Afterward, she locked each one's door again and headed downstairs for the next meal preparation.

Lucy was a good nurse - kind, efficient, and able to control each of her charges. When Timothy was not shaking too badly, Lucy steered him and Jake down the back stairs, holding each man's arms carefully, and took them out into the backyard to sit for an hour in the sun. She read short stories to poor Bernard when his moaning lessened and allowed him to concentrate.

After Lucy exited the Cates mansion Monday morning of each week, Rebecca, Claudia, and Gracelyn threw themselves into the care of their men. Following Rebecca's lead, Claudia and Gracelyn gritted their teeth and did their allotted tasks superlatively, one sister taking over for another when burnout resulted from the grueling round-the-clock duties. Visitors to their home were impressed with their work ethic, how busy they were during daylight hours. On a typical day, Gracelyn prepared meals for the invalids, Rebecca scheduled doctors' appointments and computed insurance deductibles, and Claudia went to the pharmacy for medications and ran other errands. Visitors who were themselves caretakers knew especially what the sisters faced daily. They understood the endless planning and work required in a situation that would mean life or death at any moment a mistake was made. They understood the discipline and dedication that must underlie a commitment to sick persons, maintained despite the sameness and unpleasantness of the work from day to day. They understood the danger to the well of exhaustion, frustration, and despair should they sense their utmost efforts were unable to thwart the persistent deterioration of their charges. They knew what it took to cherish the sanctity of life enough to wrestle with the gravity of life eroding.

As their husbands' health worsened, the Cates women vacated the second-story bedrooms they had shared with them. Rebecca and Claudia dispersed themselves to the third story of the large house and Gracelyn occupied the attic, which she had begun to imagine vividly as her writer's garret. Throughout the day, the ministering of multiple medications kept the women rotating their trips up and down the stairs to Jake's and Timothy's rooms. Timothy was invariably hung over and frequently passed out. Only in the evening did he summon enough sobriety and strength to exit the house. At any hour of the night also, the sisters might hear Jake wandering downstairs, or Bernard's moans. Though usually awakened, they did not always bestir themselves. Only the smell of something left burning on the stove or a draft from the front door hastily closed and now swept open in a gust of wind would bring Rebecca or Claudia to her feet to investigate. Gracelyn would answer Bernard's muffled moaning and go downstairs from her attic space to adjust his pillows or see that he had enough blankets. Though the disruptions were frequent, the sisters decided against Lucy's method of locking the men in to prevent them from harming themselves.

"Jake knows this house like the palm of his hand," Rebecca told her sisters. "If he wants to wander around, he'll be safe enough. And if he lights the stove, the smell will hit me. I don't think we should lose a good night's sleep over it. Dr. Turner can't give Bernard any more morphine than that drip allows, so we just have to let him holler. Gracelyn, I wouldn't even disturb him; just try and rest your mind until that pain passes."

"It's hard to lie there and hear him suffer."

"I know it is, honey child."

"But I'm just so tired at the end of the day."

"Of course you are. You need your sleep. You can't do a thing for him rest-broken, and he most likely doesn't know if you're there or not, he's so far gone."

Gracelyn nodded weakly.

"Timothy is going to get to town and find some liquor whether we lock his door or not," Rebecca continued. "That skinny man is spry, and I don't put it past him to go out the window and climb down the trellis. Other than that, it's no use having him bang on the door in the middle of the night causing a commotion. We have to get our rest for our own sake, as well as for the menfolks'. We can't do everything round the clock, day in and day out. And what we can't do, the Lord will." As always, Rebecca's dictum was followed by her sisters.

The Cates women maintained a pristine order in the house, enabling the sick and the well to coexist. When Lucy returned on Saturday morning to relieve the sisters, she never found anything amiss in the men's cleanliness, nor were their pharmaceuticals ever in short supply. She commented often to her neighbors how circumspect the Cates women were as caretakers, and mused along with them how difficult it must be to care for chronically ill menfolk.

With Lucy in charge of their men, Sunday after church for the Cates sisters was long and pleasurable. Once home, they enacted their weekly ritual of cooking a massive dinner and talking up a storm while eating it. Immediately following the second course of their meal, they collected baskets of threads, yarns, and fabric scraps and removed themselves to the sprawling front porch of the mansion, where sunlight filtered like quicksilver through the railings. Seated in wicker fan chairs painted a spring green, they worked studiously on crochet, needlepoint, and piecework and continued the conversation begun at the dining table.

Today, Rebecca, eyes steeled and staring straight ahead, paused from probing and twirling a wooden crochet hook into the deep burgundy rug yarn of her project.


Excerpted from Laelia by Ruth-Miriam Garnett Copyright © 2004 by Ruth-Miriam Garnett. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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